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A parent’s death propels a Wichita teenager into a mental health crusade

By: Chris Green

Ngoc Vuong, a student at Wichita’s South High school has help start a Teenage Dating Violence Campaign.

Dealing with the loss of a parent helped inspire incoming Wichita State freshman Ngoc Vuong to take up mental health as his cause. His efforts have reached beyond the halls of his alma mater, Wichita South High

It happened when Ngoc Vuong was a 15-year-old sophomore at Wichita’s South High School.

His mother, Le Hang Huynh, had fallen. She was rushed to a hospital by ambulance, where her family learned that she had experienced a ruptured brain aneurysm, an uncommon but often fatal type of stroke. She entered a coma and brain death followed. Just 46 years old, she died on the afternoon of Sept. 28, 2015.

The death of a parent is among the most traumatic events that a teenager can face. The loss of his mother challenged Vuong’s mental health to the extent that his doctor prescribed antidepressants for him. But as he faced his own grievous loss, Vuong found a purpose that would drive him on a leadership journey where he’d impact the lives of others.

In doing so, Vuong would, in many ways, be honoring the wishes of his mother, who had made an unusual request of her son years before her death.

“My mom said, ‘Hey, I don’t think I’m going to live that long anymore,’” Vuong says. “’I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but regardless, keep doing the right thing. Keep on trying to help people. Keep on doing you. Because once I’m gone, you’re going to have to learn how to stand up for yourself.’”

Vuong is the son of working-class Vietnamese immigrants. His father, Nghi Vuong, was a Vietnam War refugee. Between his family, friends and teachers, Vuong found that he had a support

system to help him during his own difficulties. What he quickly realized, however, was that not everybody in his school was so fortunate.

“Truth be told, a lot of other kids who’d be in my situation don’t necessarily have the same support system,” Vuong says. “If you don’t have the support system, don’t have that person to lean back onto whenever you’re in need of it, it does get worse, you know, your issues.”

The students who navigate the halls of South High come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Titans – that’s the mascot of the school’s sports teams – are nearly as likely to be black, Hispanic or Asian as they are to be white. Nearly three- quarters of the students come from households classified as “economically disadvantaged,” according to state data. There are also LGTBQ students who, despite the existence of peer support groups such as a gay-straight alliance, may at times face rejection at home or bullying because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

When Vuong looked around his school, he noticed a lot of kids who were struggling with mental health issues, including some of his friends. When they tried to talk to their parents, they felt dismissed. Some challenges, Vuong observes, extend from the culture of the households that students come from. Asian-American parents, to use one example, may have very high expectations of their children.

“If the kids aren’t able to fulfill that, the parents … tend to look down on them,” Vuong says.

But there are generational differences as well.

“Another aspect of it is the parents themselves never had this kind of conversation with their parents,” Vuong says. “Instead of reaching out for help, they just had to internalize the struggle.”

Vuong wanted to find a way to combat the stigma of discussing mental health challenges not just in his school but also in the larger community.

“In my junior year, I had the idea that South High could be the first school in the city of Wichita, perhaps even in the state of Kansas, to initiate a student-led mental health endeavor,” Vuong says. He wanted to “involve not just teachers, not just parents, not just community members but the students themselves, the people who were actually affected by this, in the process.”

So began a journey that would lead to thecreation of ICTeens in Mind, a student group that provides support to youth affected by mental illness and advocates for student-led awareness and support initiatives. The ICT in the group’s name refers to the airport code for Wichita, which has increasingly been used as a nickname for the community itself.

Ngoc Vuong, a student at Wichita’s South High, prepares the projector for a presentation from Wichita State student Tracia Banuelos at a Teenage Dating Violence Campaign meeting, at South High School.

Working Out the Kinks

In case it’s not clear, there was little if any precedent at South High or elsewhere in Kansas for students to take on the cause of mental health. Despite his experiences, Vuong knew he wasn’t an expert on the topic. He and his fellow students weren’t mental health professionals; they would not diagnose peopleor provide any treatments whatsoever.

But if not those things, then what could they do? Clarifying the role students could play in promoting a better environment for mental health became a key part of Vuong’s leadership challenge. “The first step – you’ve got to find people who have similar passions as you who notice the same issues as you do,” Vuong says.

But in doing so, Vuong was working uphill against the stigma that mental illness too often carries, says Gerry Lichti, community activities coordinator for the Wichita chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI).

“It’s a kind of prejudice, a way of looking at things that says, ‘Wait a minute, these kids are not capable enough to understand what’s going on, and they don’t have capacities to deal with their peers in any kind of sensitive way about these illnesses,’” Lichti says.

Patty Stuever, the Wichita School District’s student leadership coordinator, has worked with Vuong and says that his efforts provide an example of the KLC leadership ideas that “anyone can lead, at any time.” He had a life experience that prompted him to tap into a passion for mental health and do something about the problems he saw. He also found a way to engage his peers and others in the community, and received significant support along the way.

“What a great story for other kids to read about and to see,” says Stuever, who has completed several Kansas Leadership Center programs over the past five years.

Vuong’s high school and other schools in the Wichita district offer student leadership groups. They’re designed to encourage interested students to take on projects or efforts to improve the school and community. Participants aren’t the elected leadership of student government but students who have a passion for making a difference.

Through his student leadership group, Vuong found a handful of students willing to join him. The group started brainstorming and talking about all the possibilities for supporting mental health and empowering students attending South. They also talked about the potential barriers they would face. Administration support would be crucial; otherwise the whole effort might be shut down.

Vuong worked with his most passionate peers to prepare for a meeting with the school’s principal, Cara Ledy, and helped answer her questions.

“We got approval immediately once our principal realized that this was a serious issue, and matter of fact, we should get the counselors on board as well,” Vuong says. “I actually had several meetings with the counselors beforehand just to discuss potential issues – liability, legality and privacy – that could come out of this. By talking to the administration, we were able to work out the different kinks.”

Ledy says Vuong came to her with a clear, written outline of what he was interested in doing, and she worked with him to finalize and fine-tune his proposal. Participants in South’s student leadership group routinely engage in projects that benefit the school and community, so it wasn’t especially surprising to have a student take on such an important topic. And Vuong had a proven track record at South that Ledy could trust in.

“He is phenomenal,” Ledy says. “When he’s passionate about something, not only do you see it, you feel it and it’s contagious.”

Tracia Banuelos, a student at Wichita State University, offered her perspective at a meeting at Wichita South High School on teen dating violence.

Don’t Fear Rejection

From the beginning, partnership has been a core part of the strategy Vuong and his group have used to advance their cause. In addition to school administrators and counselors, ICTeens in Mind has worked with the South High chapter of the gay-straight alliance, in part because suicide rates are significantly higher among LGTBQ students.

Some of the group’s biggest impacts have come from its effort to give students a chance to express themselves on the issue of mental health. At an event called the Hope Show, students were given the opportunity to talk about their experiences, including struggles with drug abuse, in front of an audience of several hundred other students.

“We tend to think of mental health as some kind of taboo,” Vuong says. “’Hey, you’re not supposed to talk about this.’ If you’ve got depression, you’re doing it for attention. Or for anxiety, you need to get ahold of yourself. When the students documented their experiences, they were able to bring it down to a more personal, intimate level. With a human connection, people who wouldn’t normally take mental health seriously, that certainly changed their minds.”

The group has also received support from the broader community, including Lichti and Wichita’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, as well as the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office. The Wichita Community Foundation awarded the group a $1,000 grant to expand mentoring programs for students at Enders and Enterprise elementary schools. ICTeens in Mind has also partnered with other district and suburban high schools on awareness-raising campaigns, including one on teen dating violence with Pittsburg High School.   

Not everything has gone smoothly. At one point in 2017, Vuong’s efforts with his mental health group, then called the USD 259 Mental Health Coalition, was profiled in Affinity, an international magazine written by teens for teens. The story ended up raising eyebrows among adults, and district-level administrators started looking into the group, something Vuong chalks up to a miscommunication.

Everything got straightened out in the end, but the group ended up changing its name to ICTeens in Mind. But even that hiccup has worked out for the best. Vuong says the new name gave the group new flexibility for reaching other schools and groups outside the district.

“Part of it was just learning to be adaptive in times of conflict and times of struggle,” Vuong says. “Always having a plan, just in case, when things go wrong.”

Vuong, who turned 18 in April, graduated in May. He intends to follow his two older siblings to Wichita State University, which awarded him the 2018 Lenora N. McGregor Endowed Scholarship, worth up to $26,000 over four years. Looking back at his high school career, Vuong has a lot of accomplishments to treasure. As student body president last school year, he advanced a long-term project aimed at beautifying the campus called the Titan Empowerment Plan. He was also chosen for the Walmart Inc. Everyday Hero Award and recognized by Wichita’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Recently he’s been involved in the school walkouts that have taken place in the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. But his biggest rewards were the relationships he developed with younger students through the elementary-school mentoring program.

Some things certainly didn’t go as far as he wanted – Vuong wishes he could have persuaded more students to get involved in mental health awareness. But his efforts in mental health work won’t end with his transition to college life.

He’s looking at being involved in college groups dealing with mental health issues and will remain connected with ICTeens in Mind. Heidi Smith, a junior-to-be, is taking the reins of the group at South. Vuong is also exploring possibilities for turning ICTeens in Mind from a student-led group into a stand-alone nonprofit with a 501(c)(3) status. His ultimate career goal is to stay within the realm of mental health by becoming a clinical psychologist or child psychiatrist serving the Wichita area.

One thing he’s learned from his experiences working on mental health is to have the courage to take a leap and risk reaching out to others.

“My first lesson is: Don’t be afraid of rejection,” Vuong says. “If you’re worried that somebody’s going to say no, you’re limiting yourself from the kind of help, the kind of different unique experiences and advice that you can get.”

A version of this article was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.

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